The number of 911 calls in Guilford County has been increasing at a rate about four times faster than the population.
Since 2010, the county’s population has increased roughly 8 percent, while the number of 911 calls has grown 30 percent over that same time period.
In fiscal 2017-2018, Guilford-Metro 911 received 166,270 calls compared to 128,892 in 2009-2010. That means the call center has gone from an average of 350 calls per day nine years ago to about 450 calls a day in the most recent complete fiscal year.
It’s not clear exactly why the number of calls in Guilford County has gone up so dramatically compared to the population, but there seem to be many contributing factors for the increase locally – and nationally as well.
There is, for one thing, the growing ubiquity of cell phones. That means there are likely to be multiple callers for a single incident. Two decades ago a traffic accident might generate a single 911 call but now there may be five calls.
Also, with a larger number of cell phones in use, there are more “butt dials” to 911.
“We get a good number of cellular calls that are hang ups,” said Christine Moore, the operations manager for Guilford-Metro 911.
Also, increasingly in recent years, devices such as the Apple Watch make it easier for users to call 911. The new version of the watch can be set to automatically call 911 if a fall is detected.
Also, society as a whole seems to have gotten much more thinned skinned over the last decade. One only has to watch the news or google “ridiculous 911 calls” to find a host of examples of people dialing 911 for non-emergency reasons. Even one person insulting another or someone smoking in a non-smoking area might precipitate a 911 call in 2018.
There has also been a growth in prank 911 calls nationally including the practice of “Swatting” – calling in and reporting fake hostage situations or other major crimes that require a SWAT Team response. A Kansas case in which a victim was killed by a responder has made this practice better known nationally.
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Perdue, who was the head of Guilford County Emergency Services for years before retiring and becoming a commissioner, said that in recent years people have access to a larger number of devices that let them know more about their medical condition. While those devices might not necessarily call 911 after, say, running a test on a user’s heart rate, Perdue said, the devices still make people more aware of their medical condition and that information could prompt a user to call 911.
I could write a book. My husband was a 911 dispatcher for Guilford County Emergency Services.
The system has created their own monster by encouraging people to call 911 and by lack of education. Television programs in the 80s and 90s pushed the entertainment value as “thrill and excitement” of the 911 system to the public. Cell phones accelerated the call volume by convincing people that they could virtually be located no matter where they were just by placing their call (which wasn’t true at the time but became true as the cell system had to catch up with the myth). Then the cell system added texting to 911 calls and calls by FB. 911 was convincing people that they could save people and solve problems no matter where you were, what your problem was or how serious the situation was. Meanwhile, emergency services were being tasked with more responsibilities growing from heart attacks, car wrecks, shootings to monitoring people’s insulin and blood pressure or mental health status; from fires to dealing with hazardous material spills and bomb threats; from robberies and speeding tickets to terrorist plots and undercover operations for drugs, sex trafficking, guns, pornography. All of these responsibilities add to the incoming volume of 911 calls.
Before the 1970s most small communities, including Guilford County, had largely volunteer fire departments responding to emergency calls which meant that people made a call to a local number and departments were notified by a chain of phone calls and a siren on top of the fire station. Local citizens who were volunteers responded to the emergency and if an ambulance came to take someone to the hospital it most likely came from the funeral home. Local communities were far more self-sustaining and resilient, took care of themselves and frankly not as needy as people are today. As communities grew in this area and the city of Greensboro annexed areas the need for a more coordinated system also grew resulting in a paid combined dispatch system in the County and one in the City which was eventually combined to be what is now Metro911, a paid County Emergency Medical System of ambulances for the County and City, the Greensboro Fire Department, several still volunteer fire departments in the County with mostly paid chiefs and personnel, the Greensboro Police Department, the Guilford County Sheriff’s Department.
The call volume has increased for a variety of reasons, which wasn’t addressed in the article. There has been an increase in the volume of traffic on our roads, there is an increase in the population in the County, there is a serious lack of public education as to using the 911 system. The last issue is something that I can address personally.
I was once, in the olden days, the Fire Educator for Guilford County Emergency Services, a position that was lost to budget cuts in the 90s. One of the lessons that were taught to all the fifth and first graders in the County schools as well as day care programs, senior groups, civic groups was how and when to use the emergency call system or 911. I covered topics like how to call 911, how and why to answer the questions a dispatcher would ask, what to do before and after calling, when to call and when not to call 911. I also helped parents who were interested in teaching kids what happens when they made fake 911 calls, a cool experience when a Deputy Sheriff and fire chief show up at their home to ask questions then teach lessons, especially when the fire chief is also their softball coach. Kids who are educated go home to educate their parents and grandparents and the whole system works better. Not only do they use the 911 system better but they know how to prevent fires, respond to fire emergencies, escape from fires, handle other emergencies in a more mature manner because they have an appreciation for the people who work for emergency services through the yearly program.
Although most of the emergency services have some type of public education program they are hit and miss, done during Fire Prevention Week or at special events during the year. The lack of comprehensive education and television programs and movies leading people to believe that emergency services handle everything everytime has led to an increase in calls. Your order at McDonald’s wasn’t right? Call 911. You are having a mega migraine attack? Call 911. You’ve had “that pain” in your side for four days? Call 911. You see smoke in your neighbor’s yard? Call 911. You see a strange car in your neighborhood? Call 911. You see a dog running loose? Call 911. You see some kids playing outside without an adult watching them? Call 911. The traffic is backed up on 40/85? Call 911. (Seriously, people were told on the news to do this by the supervisor at 911 once when the cameras were put in the dispatch center.) If you’re not sure, call 911 is what people have been told by 911, police, sheriff, EMS, fire.
They have created their own problem. If they want to solve the problem they need to do two things. First, they need to decide what their purpose is. Are they there to respond to emergencies or to hold people’s hands and be a social service agency? Second, they need to educate the public about when and how to use their system instead of keeping it a secret.